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MOVIE REVIEW

I Love You, Beth Cooper

Rehashing teen films is risky business

JOE LEDERERPaul Rust plays a high school senior in love with Hayden Panettiere’s title character. JOE LEDERERPaul Rust plays a high school senior in love with Hayden Panettiere’s title character. (Joe Lederer)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 10, 2009
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“I Love You, Beth Cooper’’ is unusual in that it’s the rare teen stu-com - shorthand for “stupid comedy,’’ a proud lineage that goes back to “Porky’s’’ and beyond - that’s based on a novel. On the other hand, maybe not so unusual, since author Larry Doyle has written for “The Simpsons’’ and “Beavis and Butt-Head’’ (and The New Yorker, OK?), and he comes clean about his love for all things John Hughes in the quotes that open each chapter. So what we have here is a cross-media repurposing of teen movies mulched through Doyle’s head onto the page, then remulched by him and director Chris Columbus back onto film.

The results, not surprisingly, taste like mulch. “I Love You, Beth Cooper’’ is one of those long-graduation-night-of-the-teenage-soul comedy dramas (“American Graffiti’’ and “Dazed and Confused’’ remain the platinum standard) in which geek woos golden girl and everything goes fantastically wrong before it goes outrageously right. There’s no denying the movie starts out, as in the book, with a bang: High school senior Denis Cooverman (played by 28-year-old Paul Rust) decides to use his valedictorian speech to go out in a blaze of glory, proclaiming his undying love for head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere).

In the same speech, he namechecks and pop-analyzes the school’s bully (Josh Emerson), psycho military freak (Shawn Roberts), and bitchy queen bee (Marie Avgeropoulos) before outing his own best friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter). Rust, who’s quite good behind his enormous beak of a nose, expertly conveys the sweat-flop thrill of burning all your bridges in public - the scene’s propulsively funny because you have no idea where it’s going to end.

It does end, though, and takes the rest of the movie with it. Beth, contemptuously amused, turns up at Denis’s house with her two BFF minions, ditzy Treece (Lauren Storm) and dead-eyed Cammie(Lauren London). Shortly following is her boyfriend Kevin, the aforementioned psycho G.I. Joe, who with his own steroid toadies chases Denis, Rich, and the girls throughout the suburban evening. There are stops at the liquor store, the girls’ locker room, the queen bee’s party, various unlit back roads. A Hummer gets driven through a picture window. A raccoon is made to look like a feral killer through the use of computer-generated fangs. Yes, again.

“I Love You, Beth Cooper,’’ in other words, is a rehash of teen-comedy conventions that occasionally comes within shouting distance of its ’80s-era inspirations. Carpenter’s character is a film geek, dropping classic lines of dialogue none of the others even recognize (been there), and when he references Curtis Armstrong in “Risky Business,’’ you realize that’s what this movie wants to be: one of those crummy yet witty “Savage’’ Steve Holland comedies Armstrong made with John Cusack back in the day: “Better Off Dead’’ or “One Crazy Summer.’’ For “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’’ fans, there’s even the blissful sight of that movie’s Alan Ruck - scha-winggg, battah - as the hero’s cool-jerk dad.

Here’s what I can’t figure out, though: Why invite Chris Columbus to this party? He’s a well-rewarded studio hack who can and has brought major properties successfully to the screen - “Home Alone,’’ the first two “Harry Potter’’ films - without a hint of personality or genuine moviemaking passion. You can tell he gets the jokes and likes the characters in “Beth Cooper,’’ but he’s unable to stitch the scenes together with any comic momentum. The movie keeps building and flat-lining, building and flat-lining, botching (among other things) the subplot about whether the best friend is or isn’t gay. You leave wondering if anyone involved with “Beth Cooper’’ has even met anyone who’s gay.

Panettiere, I’m sad to report, is a dud as the title character, a supposed wild thang who never rises above the level of runty, obnoxious mall chick, down to the roll-on tan. (Storm and London register much more strongly as her friends.) The movie takes pains to humanize this dull mannequin while making cruel sport of the ugly girl (Anna Mae Routledge) Denis is ashamed he ever dated. Here’s an idea, please: Can some woman repurpose her high school years and finally stick it to all the geeky boys who grew up and made it in Hollywood?

I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER

Directed by: Chris Columbus

Written by: Larry Doyle, based on his novel

Starring: Paul Rust, Hayden Panettiere, Jack T. Carpenter

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (crude and sexual content, language, some teen drinking and drug references, and brief violence)

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